Friday, December 30, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Pauline Oliveros

Do you Deep Listen?

I don't mean whether or not you listen deeply, but rather if you practice Deep Listening, an altogether more obscure and delicious type of listening.  Chances are you think that I'm foisting a Zen riddle or bad popsicle stick joke on you, but some of you will recognize that phrase as the calling card of one of the premiere ambient music groups in the US, one whose importance and recording sites were both very large indeed.  I'm referring, of course, to the Deep Listening Band, a group created by the great Pauline Oliveros, a singular figure in Classical music and beyond who kept on trucking to the very end.

Oliveros was able to surmount incredible odds to make a career in music, specifically being taught the accordion when she was a child*.  Once she reached college she bounced around a few institutions before settling in at San Francisco State College where she came under the tutelage of Robert Erickson, one of America's great compositional never-heard-a-'im's, and first met her longtime co-conspirator and co-genius Stuart Dempster, as well as the one and only Terry Riley.

You see, these were the Days of Wine and Hallucinogens, the heady and wacky era of New Music when the cultural revolution was seeping into academia, the era of John Cage's greatest influence, and Oliveros took to it all like a ring in a bell.  She was an original member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an important early center for electronic music on the west coast, and became the director of it when it moved to Mills College on the Wrong Side of the Tracks**.  During this time she developed the Expanded Instrument System, an improvisational technique that combined live instrumental playing with electronics and sound processing environments, and would continue to refine and employ this system throughout her career, especially with the DLB.  She wised up after a while and moved back to California to teach at UC San Diego, in a department that Erickson co-founded, and eventually became the director of the university's Center for Music Experiment (sic).  However, she left that position, at the end a tenured one, in 1981 to move to upstate New York and become an independent musician and composer, a bold move that freed her creatively and allowed here to further immerse herself in nature, a foretelling move if there ever was one.

In 1988 (my birth date, by the way JEALOUS MUCH?!), she heard about the Fort Worden Cistern in Port Townsend, WA, a massive military well that had long ago been drained and was built to hold millions of gallons of water.  Joined by Dempster on trombone and the vocalist Panaiotis (check his Wikipedia page for pronunciation), Oliveros descended into the cistern to make an album-length improvisation that took advantage of the cistern's incredible 30-second echo.  The result was Deep Listening, the first album to capture what would become a band, institute and philosophy.  Deep Listening is a little hard to define (Oliveros wrote a book on it if you need a longform explanation) but Oliveros offered a single sentence version: "listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing".  It's essentially a way of creating an immersive soundspace ruled by sympathetic, resonant improvisation and geared at achieving higher sonic awareness, though that sentence in itself is a bit goofy.  However you want to define it the results with the Band are excellent, and the group has put out 15 albums as of this writing.  Their future is a bit uncertain with Oliveros's passing but the albums will continue to stand as a testament to the Band's magical creativity, and founding member Stuart Dempster is still alive and kicking.

Speaking of Dempster: his 80th birthday was back in July, and there was a concert/happening in his honor at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle.  I stopped in, as I had worked with Dempster years prior when he visited the University of Puget Sound, and I enjoyed every second of his birthday jam, a nearly 2-hour improvisation preceded by the audience humming outside and ended with Dempster himself (seated practically right next to me the whole night, unbeknownst to myself until he got up) leading a big group dance/conga line/whoopinanny.  Among the musicians were Seattle trombonist/Indian music specialist/goofball Greg Powers on flugelbone (a fascinating flugelhorn/trombone hybrid) and squeaking pig toy and the unearthly vocalist Ione, whose mouth improv must be seen to be believed.  Also present was Oliveros, who had quite the talent with a harmonica and looked happy to still be performing at her age.  I clandestinely made a nearly 20-minute video of part of the improvisation with my phone, so hopefully one day I'll upload the footage to YouTube and get sued by somebody, but rest assured that it was a warm and fuzzy 80th bash and I'm very happy I went.  I'm also very happy I was able to see Oliveros perform live before her passing, and I guess that what I saw was one of her last performances - and thankfully it was a great one.

There's a lot to the life and career of Pauline Oliveros, electronic and improvisation music iconoclast and overall musical legend, but I feel that nothing could be a better eulogy for her career than showing you guys some Deep Listening goodness.  Here's the original Deep Listening album in full, originally released in 1989 by New Albion and still in print as one of the coolest ambient music projects of all time.  Rest in peace, Pauline.



Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Gregg Smith

As this past month has had me checking the "recent death" pages of many a site each and every day I've been antsy about making sure I don't miss anybody notable or "men of my own heart" as it were.  Wikipedia's list was pretty eye-opening (Steven Stucky was totally left out of national news, for one) and helped me remember a few figures who I'd mourned in previous months but had since slipped my mind.  A few people are bound to slip through the cracks regardless of my vigilance, however, and Gregg Smith was nearly one of them, largely because even the majority of people who knew of him didn't know he was a composer.  Gregg Smith was, and should remain, best known as the founder and leader of the Gregg Smith Singers, one of the most revered choirs in America for their pioneering work in championing new music and historically valuable American music.  Equally at home recording William Billings and Elliott Carter, the Singers have had a career spanning more than 60 years and over 130 albums, making them one of the most prolific recording choirs of all time.  I could go on for ages about the Singers' accomplishments, including showcasing this Christmas Carol album -

- or their recent recording of Stravinsky's "notorious" arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner -

- but Smith's composing career is why we're really here, though my review of it will have to be brief.  Smith's own compositions were almost exclusively choral works, covering a wide swath of poetic sources and shaking up the traditional choir "sound" with some instrumental variety.  Almost none of it was recorded, or at the very least searching for it has been something of a challenge, but there is one work that I'd like to spotlight here, and that's the only one that showed up, without any direct involvement by Smith, on a new music compilation completely devoid of choral music.

Steps, a setting for voice and guitar of a poem by Frank O'Hara, New York experimental writer and Harvard roommate of Edward Gorey, might not be enough to be representative of Smith's compositional "voice" but is certainly a bubbly and engaging work that adds a fresh perspective to the voice and guitar rep.  This 1975 piece may have been inspired by the 1972 National Book Award co-win of The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, the first of several posthumous collections of O'Hara's work, but might also have been simply because the text is pretty boss.  O'Hara's poetry stretched the boundaries of form and content, featuring everything from snippets of diary entries to telephone conversations, and were primarily autobiographical, and reviewing the lyrics to this piece (viewable by opening the performance video in a separate window and looking at the description) make me want to have met him, badly.  The writing here for the voice and guitar is showy and full of wild climaxes, following the ditzy, yet highly observant and sometimes grim, nature of the text.  Surprisingly for someone primarily devoted to vocal composition, Smith's guitar writing is quite sophisticated and untroubled, though I'm not sure if he worked with a player or learned all by himself.  The piece has never been published, the only copy I know of donated as a gift by Smith to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but it was recorded by none other than David Starobin, America's premier new music guitarist.

That previous recording was done at the SFCM, so it sadly looks like Smith's best shot at a "hit" isn't getting the repeat performances it deserves.  That doesn't mean we all have to sit on our hands, though, so perhaps you guys know some guitarists, some guitarists who wouldn't mind playing from a manuscript gotten from the archives of a school in the worst housing market in the States, someone who knows a singer with a taste for satirical theatrics.  The Singers wouldn't be afraid to play it, so why should we?

Rest in peace, Gregg.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Pierre Boulez

Earlier this year I used this same image in an article about a piece that the pictured composer, Pierre Boulez, had withdrawn from his catalog, the infuriatingly enticing Trois Psalmodies for piano.  It's the most happy, inviting one I could find of him, and while I've been making an effort to get flattering, sunny photos of the people I've talked about for these In Memoriam articles there's an added pressure with Boulez, partially because that for a lot of people, including a part of me, Boulez was the troll under modern music's bridge.  For decades there was no way to experience the cutting edge of Avant-Garde classical music without running across his name or his works, and the latter's reputation was primarily painted with the brush of his Piano Sonata no. 2, an especially brutal work that has gained quite a status since its authorship in the 1950's.  While I personally favor that work over Jean Barraqué's Piano Sonata, as forbidding an "opus one" work as there ever was, I'll probably never see eye to eye with Boulez's oeuvre or ideals.  Sticking to music that doesn't kowtow to popular tastes or Classical music's "relaxing" market niche does make him quite admirable, but it's mostly just not music I can use - and I say that as a man who has spent this entire blog championing works by artists whom the general public found no use for.  For this memorial article, however, I'll talk about a work that is the most appropriate musical eulogy for Boulez, and some of you may have heard a different version of it without even realizing it.

The Memoriale is one of the several versions of ...explosante-fixe..., originally written for flute, clarinet and trumpet in the early 1970's as a eulogy for Igor Stravinsky*.  I may have mentioned in my last Boulez article that he kept revising and recycling this piece for decades, culminating in a work for flute, midi and orchestra, and that I personally heard Gunther Schuller express disdain at the fact that Boulez was allowed to publish all the revisions as separate pieces and collect royalties for all of them.  I'd argue that they're all fairly different from one another (and Stravinsky himself constantly revised and rearranged his own works and nobody complains about that, now do they?!), and my favorite one is the one here, scored for flute, two horns and string sextet.  Another composer I personally met, Daron Hagen, claimed that he preferred Boulez works where he "was trying to be Debussy, and not playing mind games with himself (*motions with hands*)", and I can't think of a more Debussy-esque piece of his than this.  The Memoriale is lush, a bit capricious and enchanting to a "t", several spins of a kaleidoscope with core material diced up in the lens.  The younger Stravinsky would certainly have approved, as the softly jutting flute line and cushioning, sympathetic strings would be right at home in the Firebird, itself heavily indebted to the harmonic doors that Debussy opened for the world.  There's also an indebtedness Memoriale has to Debussy directly, as his Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune, allowing a flute solo to dictate rises and falls and cycle back to the same phrases over and over.  It's a lovely rest-stop for Boulez's career of making works to stand one's skin on end.  And luckily for you guys somebody uploaded a score/recording combo video so you can see Boulez's subtly ingenious orchestrations at work.

Rest in peace, Pierre.


*Fun fact: the premiere of The Rite of Spring is closer to Beethoven's time than ours.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Steven Stucky

As I mentioned in my peek at Roland Dyens's Songe Capricorne, Re-Composing is spending the rest of this month paying tribute to the composers we lost in 2016, many of whom were major figures and at least a couple who were living legends.  Back in February we lost a man who gained as much acclaim and credibility as an American composer can without actually becoming necessarily famous, Steven Stucky (1949-2016).  Stucky is a composer that I had never heard of before college and have since strangely forgotten to really investigate, even though I've heard a number of his works and I ran across his scholarship when reading about Witold Lutoslawski, one of my favorite composers and one upon which Stucky was an expert.  He's even unfamous for a Pulitzer Prize winner, snagging it for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, an unusual winning work in that it still hasn't been recorded in the 13 years since its composition.  As I'm writing this I'm admiring one of his later works, a Symphony from 2012 that sounds like it's right up Ludovic Morlot's alley (*HINT SSO PROGRAMMERS*):

Perhaps he needed to attach himself to a movement or school of thought to be recognized, like post-minimalism or post-modernism or post-postism.  The education system in this country, as well as the general public, prefer to think of artists in broad, historically categorizable terms related to technique, oftentimes smudging or ignoring their actual modi operandi in the process.  You'd think that performers and other composers would be the experts on different the different "camps", and they usually are considering their first-hand knowledge of the techniques and aesthetics involved, but the more you understand an artist the more you see them as an individual and want to promote them on their own terms, rather than as a package deal with several other artists whom they might not agree with or even think are worth giving the time of day to.  A number of mediocre talents have sustained careers through sticking with the categories, while more individual composer have to work at it a bit.  That isn't to say that Stucky was eccentric (which would have won him those kind of fans (the best kind:))) - his music had an untroubled, "normal" brilliance, if that makes any sense, and he allowed himself to change with inspiration and simply do good work, which is kind of the only thing we can ask of composers.

While my own investigation of his work will take a bit of time I can freely speak on what has the potential to be his best-known work, one that I performed in my time at UPS with the Wind Ensemble: the Funeral Music for Queen Mary, a model work of Everything-Old-Is-New-Again-ism.  Ya see, there was a wave of composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who went about "recomposing"* works from the Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical periods, such as Grieg with his suite From Holberg's Time to Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Respighi's Gli Uccelli and Ancient Airs and Dances.  This practice continued sporadically through the century until gaining a resurgence after the 1970's when postmodernism became the mot juste du jour.  These kinds of works have gone from being fashionable to being nearly inevitable in any given orchestral season, but no matter how many homages/riffs/caricatures we see of older works I'll still remember Stucky's Funeral Music for Queen Mary as being one of the best.

Purcell's stately funeral march, composed in 1694 for the funeral of Queen Mary, has persisted through the centuries as one of the most loved English Baroque works, though it's probably best known these days in its "switched on" form that Wendy Carlos made for A Clockwork Orange.  Stucky's recomposition for wind ensemble does more than beef up the orchestration and throw in a modern harmony or two, instead weaving together three different Purcell pieces from the same funeral service through diffusion and dark psychological episodes.  Each work is presented clearly but then superimposed and whorled, sometimes as rubbing a pencil line into a cloud and other times as an overwhelming anarchy of mourning.  Stucky's orchestrations are ingenious, showing deft coloring choices and expert balancing, delivered with perfect pacing - all skills he was able to hone through his study of Lutoslawski's works, some of the most finely orchestrated and paced works of the mid-century Avant-Garde scene.  It's stirring and unsettling, satisfying and haunting all at once and I'm very glad I was given the chance to perform it with an excellent group.  I may return to Stucky's music in a later article but for now this will more than suffice as an introduction and fond farewell.  Rest in peace, Steven.


*Blog title drop! (finally)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Roland Dyens


(long sigh)


OK, the bright side of life first.  I'll take a selfish attitude to start so I can insist that, yes, some good things happened this year (though if I were a Cubs fan like certain best friends of mine I'd count the ultimate "Hell Freezing Over" sports event of the year as a good thing).  I was able to get a full-time job through a 20-minute interview, the shortest I'll probably ever get in my life, and it's worked out for nearly 3 months now.  I still have both my spleens, and...wait...  My chamber group Cursive played two excellent, challenging programs this year and are in preparations for a third, the cherry on top being that the musicians involved actually appreciate being in the group and the work that we're doing.  I secured future housing with an amazing deal, I don't have any terminal illnesses, and I'm not in crippling debt due to student loans, loansharks or my own multitudinous sins.  However, all of us, and I mean everybody who can stand to speak to me without projectile vomiting, can agree that this year sucked supreme shit of every type, shape and species of origin imaginable.  Full-stop, cheek-bulging shit-sucking.  Let me sum it up with much funnier writing than my own:

Let me say this as clearly as I can: there's nothing America did worse this year (that I know of) than electing Trump president.  Nothing.  I just heard about how bird flu is ripping through South Korea without proper government acknowledgement or action and every chicken in a meat/egg plant has been ordered to be killed, and Trump's 99.99999% potential presidency is still worse.  What the fuck.  I'd break my legs in protest but that would only prevent me from sprinting to Canada until my lungs explode.  Fuck Trump, fuck this country, fuck the media and fuck humans in general.  Fuckity fucker fuckfuckfuckeatmyanuswithshitsauceandbastardinteriorfuckfuckfuckfuckdonkeyanus.  And while there have been big wallops of despair like that we've had to endure an obscene number of small wallops (smallops?) of despair in the form of celebrity deaths, including the one-two punch of pop-music legends David Bowie and Prince.  I mean, for fuck's sake.  The big'un's, of course, dominated social media and the news when their deaths were announced, but dozens of little guys went largely or totally unnoticed, leaving people like me with the sad responsibility of checking Wikipedia's deaths page every day to make sure I don't miss anything.  I didn't get into this habit until late this year and most likely wouldn't have bothered if it weren't for the sheer volume of these kinds of deaths, and in doing so I found that a number of classical composers near and dear to my heart left us this year, some of them too young to go and a lot of them well-established and even legendary figures.  Normally I'd spend December covering Christmas music (and I might squeeze in a few nods before the month is out) but I've decided that for this year-end I'll talk about my favorite composers that passed away this year, because, sadly, hardly anybody else has bothered to.

When I was in Middle School I went to my first classical guitar recitals, perhaps not so surprising as classical guitar recitals aren't something that parents think to take children to as primary cultural education.  It was at a Unitarian Universalist church in Kirkland, WA, and the soloist was Michael Partington, arguably the Pacific Northwest's best-kept classical music secret.  Partington is a wonderful guitarist whose talent and heart seem larger than this area, making many of us wonder how he hasn't been snatched up by a label or lured to the Northeast or LA by all those that "success" and "money" nonsense we all claim to be above but secretly all want.  We'll treasure him while he's still around, and his recital made a fine impression on me at the time, so much so that I bought one of his CD's.  The woman selling the discs claimed the one I ended up buying had "fireworks" on it, and though I can't tell if I heard the same fireworks it succeeded in shaping my impressions of what good classical guitar music should be, featuring classics like Lennox Berkeley's Sonatina and Richard Rodney Bennett's Impromptus as well as lesser-known stuff like a pair of etudes by Seattle native Tom Baker.  You can get the CD here and it's worth the money, and among the better pieces on the disc is a work by Roland Dyens, a Tunisian-born French guitarist-composer who passed away this year two days before Halloween.

I'll admit that I haven't heard much of Dyens's music, not just because of the dumb luck that I never got around to it but also that classical guitar rep doesn't get much discussion music world, aside from with guitarists, of course.  The instrument's modest volume and the overwhelming influence of Spanish national music on the rep has kept most "serious" composers away, even though a number of big-time composers, including the likes of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, have written major works in the field, and I consider at least one pair of works, Maurice Ohana's two large cycles for the 10-string guitar, to be considerable contributions to modern music in general.  Much like the Cuban giant Leo Brouwer, Dyens promoted his compositions through his own performance, such as here with his best known piece, Tango en Skai:

Songe Capricorne ("Dream of Capricorn") doesn't have the same crowd-pleasing flair that the Tango does but it's a work very near and dear to my heart - not only did I hear it at the right place and the right time but it further proves that composers can be technically inventive and still hushed and soulful.  Dyens's music largely had an air of improvisation and Songe is no exception, shifting moods with emotive grace and allowing for much wiggle room for the performer.  The piece shows the truly comprehensive knowledge of the instrument that Dyens had, utilizing chordal counterpoint as well as rushing 16ths, the rich tenor of the guitar's main voice as well as advanced harmonics.  While the whole piece is excellent a particularly striking section is the opening to the "bridge" of the piece, with hard harmonics cutting into a string of 16th's at uneven rhythms.  All of the fine details, such as the final chords which are explicitly marked to be unstrummed, are in service of a great dramatic sensibility, helping the piece create a portrait of enormous yearning in a vast landscape.  It's a piece that has the ability to outlast its creator, and hopefully we can help it last longer than we can even dream of.  Rest in peace, Roland.